Latest Reviews
Friday
Jun272014

Transformers: Age of Extinction

As I walked into my screening for the latest Michael Bay explosion-fest, “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” a giant standup poster greeted me, touting my upcoming experience as the first film shot with the IMAX 3D Digital Camera, which means that sequences shot with it are presented in an IMAX aspect ratio that gives around 26% more image than the standard aspect ratio you would get in a normal movie theater. This is such a big selling point that even the actual film itself was preceded by a short behind-the-scenes look of shooting with the camera. It’s an interesting nugget of information for film enthusiasts and provides some exciting possibilities for future filmmakers, but it must be said: more than a new camera is needed to fix the “Transformers” franchise. A lot more.

The “Transformers” movies have always relished on the absurd. They typically take a small amount of time to set up what some might consider a story (thin though they may be) to give what follows some context, and if you’ve seen one, you know what follows is action, action and more action. The movies feel like something a 10 year old would dream up if given a camera and $200 million to play with. Appropriately, a poster with a quote from Albert Einstein on it appears early on in “Age of Extinction.” “Imagination is more important than knowledge,” it says. This quote is a fitting description of Bay’s talent: he has plenty of imagination, but, aside from an uncanny ability to film destruction, no filmmaking knowledge.

Evidence of this comes in the way he directs his actors. This time, Bay replaces Shia LaBeouf with Mark Wahlberg, a recent Oscar nominee, but the result is the same. His performance, along with the majority of the rest of the cast, is wooden. Only Stanley Tucci and Kelsey Grammar put forth a modicum of effort, likely because their talent and veteran statuses require less input from a director to be effective, but the former is given horrendous dialogue and a narrative arc that makes zero sense while the latter plays the most cliché government villain character you can imagine. The two are in cahoots, naturally, with Tucci’s character being the business mogul responsible for engineering a man-made Transformer (and if the movies have taught us anything, it’s that playing God is a bad idea) and Grammar’s CIA Black Ops character finding and killing all Autobots to give Tucci the transformium elements he needs (which is only a slightly better element name than the unobtainable unobtainium from “Avatar”). Their plan that creates the central story has something to do with building a Transformer army to protect US citizens, but let’s be honest, what does it matter?

Frankly, the story itself hardly even exists, as it comes off more like a dialogue dump than anything else. I haven’t seen a film with so much expositional dialogue in a movie with such a meaningless story in a long time. It’s one of those films where characters will ask a question about what’s going on, only for another character to go on a five minute monologue explaining every plot element up to that point. In a very real sense, “Age of Extinction” feels like it’s written by a first time screenwriter, someone who has no idea how to craft believable situations or dialogue. This shouldn’t come as a huge surprise given that it was written by Ehren Kruger, the man responsible for the worst “Scream” entry and the messes that are “The Brothers Grimm,” “The Skeleton Key” and the previous two “Transformers” movies. His writing combines with Bay’s underwhelming direction to create a film that has no flow and is thematically and narratively empty.

The best example comes with Wahlberg’s character’s poorly developed relationship with his daughter, Tessa, played by Nicola Peltz. Primarily, this is due to the fact that she, despite being only 17 in the movie, exists solely as eye candy and as a means to be abducted and saved like the helpless woman she was written to be, the Princess Peach to Wahlberg’s Mario. The movie forces in some single father shtick, like when he complains that her shorts are too short, but it never comes off as authentic (and he certainly doesn’t make her change those shorts, as that would ruin the upcoming close-up butt shot the young actress was cast in the movie for). The other characters don’t fare so well either, with the minor ones being too underdeveloped or too annoying to be interesting (“Thank God” a fellow critic whispered in my ear after one of the more grating characters bit the dust).

If there’s one thing Michael Bay knows (and if his past filmography is any indication, it is indeed only one thing), it’s action, but even that is a bit of a letdown here. After three previous movies, each one more bombastic than the last, with the third installment upping the stakes as the end of the trilogy, this feels light in comparison and is sporting a very evident “been there, done that” feel. Only the Dinobots offer up any excitement, but they show up so late in the film’s exhausting two hour and 45 minute runtime that they still fail to make much of an impression, no doubt due to the fact that you will likely be so worn down by the endless slog that came before. Characterization here is the thinnest this franchise has ever seen, believe it or not, so the vapid action is inconsequential, as there’s approximately zero reasons to care if any of these characters succumb to the destruction around them.

If that isn’t enough, “Age of Extinction” has some of the most shameless product placement in a movie since “Talladega Nights,” but at least the product placement fit into the context of that movie. Here, you’ll get nice, clean close-ups of Oreos, Beats by Dre speakers, Gucci sunglasses, Bud Light cans (one of which Wahlberg violently cracks open and chugs after slamming into and destroying one of its transportation vehicles) and even a plug for Victoria’s Secret, which is featured prominently on a bus that is completely destroyed, except for the front where the logo is, of course. I wonder if Bay thought us dumb enough to not notice these things. More likely, the incompetency with which this train wreck was put together was simply creating to its own level; “Texas, USA” flashes onscreen at one point to set the location, as if the country designator was necessary.

At 90 minutes, Bay’s brand of mindless, plotless action may be tolerable, but “Transformers: Age of Extinction” is nearly double that length, an absurd 165 minutes, the longest entry in a franchise already known for being a bloated, meandering mess. This is the second worst of the films, rising only slightly above 2009’s “Revenge of the Fallen” if only due to the fact that at least this one (arguably) isn’t racist. That’s faint praise, to be sure, but I must admit, when watching a “Transformers” movie, it’s not easy finding the high points.

Transformers: Age of Extinction receives 0.5/5

Thursday
Jun192014

Jersey Boys

Clint Eastwood may not seem like the best person to direct a musical. When you look back at his filmography, even in recent years with films like “Gran Torino,” you see mostly gruff, no-nonsense characters who, if asked, would likely tell you they wouldn’t be caught dead at a musical. Of course, his onscreen personas don’t necessarily reflect his true self, but it’s a tough sell nonetheless. However, he shows that he still has some aces up his sleeve with “Jersey Boys,” an adaptation of the hit Broadway jukebox musical of the same name. While it has more than its fair share of problems, Eastwood is surprisingly adept at putting music to screen. Granted, this isn’t your typical musical with grand choreography where people randomly start singing and dancing down the street—the music instead comes organically to the story as it follows the rise and fall of the popular 60s pop band, The Four Seasons—so much of what is shown is small in scale, but that in no way diminishes Eastwood’s steady directorial hand. “Jersey Boys,” while not the rousing success it had the potential to be, is worth seeing all the same.

The film begins in Belleville, New Jersey in 1951. As Tommy (Vincent Piazza) puts it, it’s a town with only three ways out: joining the Army and getting killed, joining the mob and getting killed or getting famous. He’s a part of a small band in town with his buddy, Nick (Michael Lomenda), and plans on getting out via the latter means. After hearing Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young) sing, he recruits him into the band. Before long, Frankie’s voice attracts some attention, including from Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), a songwriter who just knows he has to write for it. It isn’t long before they find themselves thrust into the spotlight, but fame has its price; personalities clash, heated exchanges take precedent over calm conversation and they eventually find themselves in an undesirable situation.

The first thing more discerning viewers might notice when sitting down to watch “Jersey Boys” is its color palette. The film, at least at first, is washed of bright colors. Varying shades of black and grey are most prominent, a nice touch that nails the setting of the pre-70s tie dye hippy era. While certain colors still poke their heads in now and then, they look so strange next to the more pronounced blacks and greys that it almost looks like an early black and white to color Technicolor conversion. The film gets brighter as the film goes on, paralleling the success of the band members, which adds an interesting thematic and visual layer that many films these days don’t possess.

Aside from some unconvincing green screen shots, “Jersey Boys” looks the part; it’s in its story that it falters. The film mixes drama and humor, but the two parts aren’t created equal. Despite primarily being a drama, the jokes land more effectively, while its more somber moments collapse under a story that doesn’t properly set them up. Take a late movie moment where one of Frankie’s children goes missing for a couple days, for instance. When he finally catches up to her, the heartfelt talk they share and the would-be sadder moments after resonate with a resounding thud, as the film fails to make that daughter a real character, featuring her in perhaps only one minor earlier scene. Similar issues arise with Frankie’s wife, Mary (Renee Marino), who is largely overlooked after the beginning of the film, to the point that when she popped up later, I had forgotten she was even in it.

“Jersey Boys” fares better when it focuses on the up and down relationship between the boys in the band. Pretty much all of them are unlikable—they’re abrasive, rude and more than a little bit sexist—which may turn some people away, but those unlikable personalities are the point of the movie, as it’s their behavior and arrogance that ultimately lead to their destruction. Nevertheless, some of their recklessness is so reminiscent of imbecilic television personalities that, by the end of the film’s 2 hour 15 minute runtime, they can get a bit grating, which is enhanced by a story that gets progressively heavy-handed as it goes on. At one point, one of the guys says of a song, “If you goose it up too much, it gets cheesy.” It’s an unintentional meta line that describes the narrative path of “Jersey Boys” to a tee.

If you’re in it for the songs, however, you’ll likely enjoy the movie quite a bit, though much of your appreciation for Frankie’s singing will hinge on your tolerance of those high pitched swooners that characterized that musical era. By today’s standards, it sounds a bit silly, but there’s no denying the heart and soul that went into its creation, even if that heart and soul eventually turned to bitterness and contempt. If you’re a fan of the band or grew up in their heyday, “Jersey Boys” will probably work wonders, but even if you’re not and didn’t, there’s still enough here to enjoy, though you’re not likely to remember it for long after.

Jersey Boys receives 3/5

Thursday
Jun122014

22 Jump Street

If someone asked me what the most surprisingly good movie in recent memory has been, I would confidently answer, “21 Jump Street.” The film took a largely forgotten show from the late 80s/early 90s and abandoned much of its dramatic personality, replacing it instead with flavorful comedy and clever spoofs of the buddy cop action movie genre. Even the two lead stars seemed incompatible, but it proved to be a “don’t judge a book by its cover” type of movie, firmly planting itself as one of the funniest and smartest comedies of that year. Its sequel, wittily titled “22 Jump Street,” isn’t quite as successful, as its monotonous story gives it a mild case of “The Hangover Part II” syndrome, but the difference between that film and this one is that, while it reused similar situations from its predecessor, the jokes are fresh and more often than not manage to produce some big laughs.

“22 Jump Street” begins with a routine action scene—one involving an octopus of all things—a poor start to a sequel whose first movie nobody remembers for its action. Shortly after, it sets up its story through a quick meeting with Deputy Chief Hardy (Nick Offerman) where he explains to Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) through some obvious, but still funny meta-humor that nobody expected them to succeed. To bring the old Jump Street program back was a risk, but they were successful enough to keep the program running and this time with a bigger budget. He explains that their next assignment is exactly like their last, an obvious jab at the played out “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” Hollywood sequel mentality, only this time they’re going to college. There’s a new drug called Whyphy (pronounced Wi-Fi) making the rounds and, just like last time, their job is to find the dealer and stop the drug from being distributed nationwide.

Of course, just because a movie is aware that it’s copying itself doesn’t generate an automatic forgiveness for its narrative laziness. Despite a twist or two, there is nothing new here to keep one interested as it succumbs to the very same “rehashed sequel” issues that it repeatedly makes fun of through its nearly two hour runtime. Even its drama is rehashed, only this time it’s Schmidt that’s jealous of Jenko’s newfound popularity rather than vice versa. The only clear difference between this movie and the first one is that the lousy, ineffective drama is actually increased, needlessly pervading the entire thing and causing the film to fail even harder because of it. And yes, there’s another drug trip scene.

“22 Jump Street” is one of the most self-deprecating movies I’ve ever seen, since it jokes about redundant sequels even as it relies entirely on those redundancies to form its story. Luckily, some genuine effort was made to be funny and the chemistry between Hill and Tatum is as strong as ever, which makes up for most of the film’s shortcomings. There are some terrific bits here, including the most awkward fistfight ever put to screen, and also like its predecessor, it cleverly skewers filmic clichés, like the traditional “meet cute” scene. It’s safe to say that if you laughed in the first movie, you’re likely to laugh here as well, as Hill and Tatum play off each other about as well as any comedic duo has onscreen.

Also notable is the very welcome and surprisingly serious (albeit short-lived) plea for tolerance of homosexuals, though you’d have to be reaching pretty far to argue “22 Jump Street” is a message movie. Its intention is to simply make its audience laugh and sometimes that’s all you need. Despite its copy and paste story, unwanted increase in drama and one egregious moment of product placement involving Doritos as Jenko walks down a dorm building hallway, logo to camera, without actually eating them, the film works. Although it’s unlikely to leave as much of an impression as the first movie, it’s just plain funny. It does exactly what it promises it will do, which will be enough for most viewers who want more of the same, but let’s just hope a third outing spices things up a bit.

22 Jump Street receives 3/5

Thursday
Jun122014

How to Train Your Dragon 2

If you’ve seen all their movies, it should go without saying that DreamWorks Animation is not the most consistent animation studio in the world. For every terrific film they make like “Shrek” and “Kung Fu Panda,” they make equally bad movies like “Shark Tale” and “Madagascar.” Watching them in order of their release is like riding a roller coaster full of gigantic peaks and very low valleys. They always lagged behind Pixar for a number of reasons, but with the release of 2010’s “How to Train Your Dragon,” it seemed like they were finally catching up. It was their most beautiful and mature film to date and, though it had some problems, it was perhaps the first time you could visualize DreamWorks nipping on Pixar’s heels. Its sequel is good, but less successful, even if it does retain the same aspects that made the original so good.

The film once again takes place in Berk, the best kept secret this side of “well, anywhere,” as Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) explains. Since the last film, his people have learned to tame and live alongside dragons, domesticating them as pets and using them to help with their everyday lives. Hiccup, along with his dragon, Toothless, tasks himself with charting the surrounding areas, since the ability to fly gives him a greater ability to travel long distances. On an adventure one day, he runs into Eret (Kit Harington), a dragon trapper working for the evil Drago (Djimon Hounsou), who is rounding up dragons to build an army and using them to take over the land. Hiccup, having already changed the minds of his father, Stoick (Gerard Butler), and the people of Berk about dragons, sets out to do the same to Drago.

“How to Train Your Dragon 2” has one very clear deficiency: its story is rushed. There’s a revelation about Hiccup’s past regarding someone missing from his life, which is introduced through minor dialogue, only to be explained, explored and resolved just as quickly after. There’s no real emotion behind Hiccup’s character, so little drama comes through, even when the film takes dramatic detours and plays out huge events that will change Hiccup’s life forever. When it looks like one of these moments will work, the film doesn’t linger on it enough for it to resonate. Simply put, Hiccup by himself just isn’t a very interesting character.

Luckily, he has Toothless. Much of the fun of the film is watching the dragons frolic in the background like caffeinated puppies, chasing each other and rolling around on the ground, while the human characters speak in the foreground. This gives the film a playful charm—even if these moments do ultimately serve to distract from the story at hand—but when Hiccup and Toothless are together and away from these diversions, the film is at its best. As they soar through the clouds, each defending the other from any perils they come across, their bond grows. They trust each other, as evidenced by Hiccup’s reckless attempts to fly himself with a makeshift wingsuit, and the natural majesty of the beautiful flying scenes (which are enhanced by the 3D, one of the only times the format has benefitted its host film) really make their companionship special.

Of course, this is still a DreamWorks animated movie, so it still relies heavily on silly humor to push it along, doing its best to negate its overbearing drama, and it mostly succeeds. There are some genuinely amusing jokes here, including those of the “pay attention or you’ll miss it” variety, like the Vikings humorously exclaiming “Oh my gods!” when something exciting happens. While this isn’t the funniest movie in the world, its humor keeps things lighthearted enough to spice up some of its duller moments.

But it all comes back to the poorly handled story. The entire thing is generally sloppy, failing even to follow its own internal logic. “He can’t fly by himself!” Hiccup yells when Toothless is left falling to the ground; that is except for all those other times before and after that he does. Because of issues like this, “How to Train Your Dragon 2” is a clear step down from its predecessor, which is par for the course for most sequels, yet its world is vibrant and wonderful, brimming with exciting stories that could be told. Future sequels will inevitably take advantage of that fact. “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” while still a solid adventure, stumbles too much to make much of an impression.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 receives 3/5

Friday
Jun062014

The Fault in Our Stars

It’s easy to roll your eyes when a film’s central theme is cancer. While such an affliction is inarguably sad, its handling in the movies is typically heavy-handed. The natural drama from the disease never seems to be enough for some filmmakers, who use manipulative tactics in a lame attempt to get the audience to cry, likely to hide the fact that their movie just simply isn’t very good. A good example of such a film is 2002’s Nicholas Sparks schlock-fest, “A Walk to Remember.” But whereas that film got nearly everything wrong, “The Fault in Our Stars” gets nearly everything right. Despite a moment or two of phony dramatics, this is an achingly real movie, one that explores the struggles of trying to live an everyday life with cancer and forming relationships that others take for granted. If the audience at my screening is any indication, both tears of joy and immense sadness will be shed by most who watch. Rarely have I ever had to fight so hard to hold back from sobbing uncontrollably in a theater as I did with “The Fault in Our Stars.”

Based on the 2012 book by John Green, the film follows Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley), a teenage cancer patient who hauls around a portable oxygen tank wherever she goes so she can breathe. At the behest of her mother (Laura Dern), she attends a support group for young cancer patients where she meets Gus (Ansel Elgort), a cancer survivor who has been in remission for some time, despite having to lose a leg to get to that point. She immediately finds him charming and he, unintimidated by the breathing apparatus she’s forced to use, thinks she’s beautiful. They strike up a friendship, which quickly evolves into something more.

The story is told from Hazel’s point of view and she lets us know through some early narration that what we’re about to see isn’t always going to be pleasant. She says she enjoys a fairy tale Hollywood romance just as much as the next person, but life with cancer isn’t that simple, apologizing at the end for the potential sadness we’re about to feel. You see, Hazel isn’t an entirely happy person, and why should she be? She’s suffering from a debilitating sickness that is likely to take her life sooner rather than later and every moment leading up to that inevitable conclusion is going to be filled with hardship and pain. When she finally speaks up in that aforementioned support group, she doesn’t offer words of encouragement as her fellow teenage cancer patients do; she instead comments on how everyone is going to die, that there was a time before humans and that there will be a time after and nobody will be around to remember anyone else. Essentially, life is meaningless, a stark contrast to the religious setting surrounding her.

But Gus changes her. It may go without saying, but she finally starts living. She starts getting excited about the future, despite the knowledge of her impending death in the back of her mind. Before meeting Gus, the only relationships she had were with her parents and doctors, but he opens doors she never thought she’d get to pass through. In her mind, she’s an undesirable, a sickly girl forced to breathe through a tube in her nose, but Gus sees her real beauty. Gus, being the selfless person he is, uses his still redeemable “final wish” to make her happy, taking Hazel and her mother to Amsterdam to meet her favorite author (since she wasted hers on Disneyland at age 13, “a terrible wish,” he says). Gus, as portrayed by relative newcomer Ansel Elgort, is charismatic, funny, optimistic and all around likable. Coupled with the radiant Woodley, they make one of the best onscreen couples in recent memory.

It’s their talent and chemistry that makes the movie as good as it is. It’s not perfect, however, and hits a lull when they finally meet up with that author, played by Willem Dafoe. He’s such a cruel, overly standoffish character that the drama that emerges from their interaction feels forced. Although his character serves a purpose later in the movie, the way his initial introduction is handled is sloppy and over-the-top. Every movie needs a good conflict—that’s storytelling 101—but the presence of cancer and all of its complications is enough here, these scenes merely an unnecessary detour in an otherwise smooth ride.

“Depression isn’t a side effect of cancer; it’s a side effect of dying,” Hazel says cynically in the beginning narration. It’s an interesting quote, but after meeting Gus, she comes to realize that she was wrong because even on their worst days, the two felt an unexplainable happiness they had never felt before. All that mattered was that they were together and, with the knowledge that tomorrow, in a very real sense, may not come, they needed to make each moment count. Nearly every scene has something to love and every moment Gus and Hazel spend together is special because you, just like them, don’t know how long it’s going to last. The movie is an excellent reminder that we should cherish our time on Earth and be thankful for the relationships we have because nothing lasts forever.

It may not be a big budget action blockbuster, but the tremendously powerful “The Fault in Our Stars” is nevertheless one of the summer’s best.

The Fault in Our Stars receives 4.5/5